Although the Syrian Army lost the ancient city of Palmyra to ISIS militiamen three days ago, regime soldiers were still celebrating this week. They’ve retaken 98 percent of East Aleppo, which had been in the hands of rebel groups since 2012, a victory that will reverberate across the chessboard of the Syrian Civil War.
Furthermore, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad achieved a diplomatic success. On Monday, Pope Francis sent him a letter expressing solidarity with the Syrian people, urging humane treatment of civilians and “condemning all forms of extremism and terrorism.” The day before, the Pope had again called for peace in Syria and the protection of the population of Aleppo.
As the war shifts, Assad knows he owes his victories not only to the Russian military intervention but also to the Lebanese Hezbollah Shiite movement, which has deployed thousands of al-Qaeda and jihadist fighters against the rebels.
We interviewed Amal Saad Ghorayeb, a leading scholar on Hezbollah and author of the forthcoming book, Hizbullah’s Post-Resistance: From National Resistance to Regional Power (Palgrave-Macmillan), about the group’s ever-growing role in Syria and the region.
When you talk about Hezbollah, what do you mean by post-resistance?
By post-resistance, I do not mean the overcoming of armed resistance by Hezbollah. I am referring to something that has taken on new forms. If before this resistance was directed only against Israel, now it includes the fight against the takfiri and jihadist movements in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. In my book, I examine in particular the period from 2013 to the present, when Hezbollah was carrying out an open intervention in Syria. For the first time, the Shiite movement is taking part in an armed conflict outside Lebanese territory.
Are the southern front and the conflict with Israel less important today to Hezbollah?
Not exactly. The leadership of Hezbollah has never ceased to emphasize the Israeli threat to the existence of the movement and to indicate that Israel is its enemy. After the 2006 war, Hezbollah has stepped up the training of its fighters and has acquired more equipment. For their part, the Israelis have been following closely the intervention of Hezbollah in Syria and initially had believed that that conflict would weaken the Shiite movement. But later they realized that, despite the fact Hezbollah fighters participate in fights throughout Syrian territory. The Shiite movement continues to have the skills, the men and the weapons to wage several conflicts simultaneously.
In addition, it has gained experience in conventional war, compared to 10 years ago. It is no secret that in a possible future war, Hezbollah may try to launch offensives against Israel, in Galilee. [The Secretary-General of Hezbollah] Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly affirmed this possibility. Thus, the southern front and the clash with Israel, directly or indirectly, have been and remain at the top of the agenda of the Shiite resistance movement.
But Hezbollah has expanded its role in the region.
Exactly. Also due to the urgency of the Sunni jihadist threat. The nature of the confrontation between Hezbollah and Jihadists in Syria is very different from the conflict with Israel, which is a state inserted in an international context and must consider its relations with the United States. The confrontation with Israel is basically based on deterrence and balance and, from time to time, military clashes. This does not exist in conflict with the jihadists fighting Hezbollah because it is Shiite and not for its alliance with Damascus, they would never be able to reach a compromise. At the beginning of the crisis in Syria, the leadership of the Lebanese Shiite movement just gave political support to Bashar Assad because it saw an ally of exceptional importance in danger. And also because the Syrian secular opposition had announced that if it came to power, it would sever relations with Iran and Hezbollah. Hezbollah decided to start the military intervention in Syria when it perceived a consistent threat to its own existence from jihadists and takfiris, which were setting up bases in Lebanon and executing bloody attacks against Shiites.
The region is not only Syria. Why does Hezbollah act in other countries in the area? Its opponents accuse it of fomenting sectarianism.
Hezbollah is committed to war against the jihadists and its ideological and religious enemies. As a result, Hezbollah extended its involvement to Iraq, part of Yemen and in other areas, although in different ways, not always with interventions on the ground. With the passage of time, it has become a major player in the ongoing crisis, with a weight in regional events that can be compared to that of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Its behavior is similar to that of a state that protects its interests and intervenes politically or by use of force. On a small scale, they do what the United States does in this part of the world. The military parade with tanks and artillery [which Hezbollah conducted in Syria a few weeks ago] was a message to the Middle East: Hezbollah is no longer just a guerrilla movement. Hezbollah is a powerful and influential player in this region.
What kind of role does Hezbollah want to play in Lebanon?
Hezbollah is a state within the Lebanese state, much more than in the past. There is an entire Shiite society that today leads that state, directly and indirectly. Hezbollah has adopted what might be called a “national security doctrine,” but above all it focuses on the protection of its society and its resistance. For this reason, Hezbollah is keeping a lower profile than before in national politics to favor its regional role.